A 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt Saturday was the final chapter in the Joker Phillips era of UK football as Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart announced Sunday in an open letter posted on UKAthletics.com that Phillips had been fired.
“After much conversation, evaluation and prayer, I have determined that it is in the best interest of our athletics program to make a change in our football coaching staff at the conclusion of the season,” Barnhart wrote. “I do so with a heavy heart for a man who has served his alma mater for almost 22 years as a player and a coach. Joker Phillips has carried the banner for the Blue and White with honor and pride. I have enjoyed working alongside him and am thankful for his friendship for the last decade. His concern for the entire program, his work and teaching of young people, his humanitarian work, and the friendship we all enjoy with him will long surpass the scoreboard. I want to thank him for all of those things on behalf of Kentucky.”
Joker Phillips. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Philips compiled a 12-23 record in three seasons as UK’s head coach.
“We, as coaches, are measured on results,” Phillips said in a statement. “We didn’t get the results we had worked and hoped for, therefore change is needed. In my current 10-year stay at Kentucky, we’ve had some memorable moments as an assistant, coordinator and head coach. We’ve had the opportunity to coach some fine young men and I am grateful to have had the privilege of watching them grow as players, as students and as people.”
Barnhart announced the search for a new coach will begin immediately and managed internally.
“I understand the challenge and significance of finding a new leader for our football program,” he said. “It will be done with great concern for our student-athletes, students of the University of Kentucky, the Big Blue Nation and the citizens of the Commonwealth. Kentucky Football needs to be and will be a championship contender in the SEC.”
The Phillips era started with a 6-6 regular season in 2009, but a loss to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl gave the Cats their first losing season since 2005.
Phillips’ second UK team opened the 2011 season at 2-0 but dropped seven of the last 10 games to miss snap the five-season bowl streak. That team did create some positive momentum as the season ended with a 10-7 win versus Tennessee with wide receiver Matt Roark forced to start at quarterback due to injuries, snapping the program’s 26-game losing streak to the Volunteers.
The Cats entered the 2011 season with a high-octane, no-huddle offense under the direction of sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith but dropped two of their first three games, including the program’s first loss to Sun Belt Conference foe Western Kentucky, despite averaging 322 passing yards per game.
Smith missed the 38-0 loss to Florida with a shoulder injury. He returned to action against South Carolina before suffering a torn ankle ligament on UK’s second offensive play of the game while being sacked. The injury ended his season.
With Smith out, Phillips turned to true freshmen quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles. Towles looked good on his first career drive against Mississippi State, but suffered a high ankle sprain on his third drive that kept him out of action for two weeks. Whitlow showed promise as a scrambling quarterback, but his passing game remains very much a work-in-progress after not even working full-time at quarterback as a senior at Pratville High School in Alabama.
The week-three loss to Western Kentucky began a eight-game losing streak for the Cats. UK lost to four ranked opponents in that span but also dropped games against struggling Arkansas and Missouri, which had not won a Southeastern Conference game before beating UK.
In addition to Smith, UK lost week-one starting tailback CoShik Williams and backup safety Dakotah Tyler for the season with injuries. Tailback Josh Clemons, who started for much of the 2011 season as a freshman, and safety Glenn Faulkner, who was the highest-rated recruit in Phillips’ 2011 signing class, never played this season due to injuries. The Cats also played without starting safeties Martavius Neloms, Mikie Benton, Ashely Lowery and starting corner back Cartier Rice for long stretches of the season, leaving the defense with an all-true-freshman secondary at times.
Phillips, a native of Franklin, Ky., played at UK from 1981-84. He first coached at UK under Bill Curry from 1988-1996 as a graduate assistant, assistant recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach. He returned to Lexington in 2003 as the recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach for Rich Brooks and was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2005. In 2008, Brooks and Barnhart named Phillips the “head coach in waiting,” setting a succession plan in place after Brooks’ retirement.
Following Saturday’s loss to Vanderbilt, Phillips appeared resolved to his fate.
“I get this business. I get the criticism,” he said. “Nobody in this program wants this place to have success more than me, but I understand. I understand this is a business that’s based on results and we haven’t gotten results right now.”
You can read the full letter from Barnhart here.